ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan and Western Michigan nearly followed the same script Saturday night as in Friday night’s opener in their CCHA quarterfinal series at Yost Arena.
Michigan capitalized on a three-goal first period burst including one in the period’s final seconds, to close out a gritty, determined squad of Broncos, 6-1, in the series finale.
The victory earns Michigan a berth in the CCHA semifinal round and a chance to play for a CCHA tournament championship next weekend at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
“It was a good game for us tonight; a good start again,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “We got an important first goal and we were lucky this weekend. We were good, but we were lucky. We got the bounces. We scored those last-minute goals, just about last second goals, three of them this weekend. Those are back breakers.”
Aaron Palushaj’s two goal, three-point performance paced the Wolverines’ attack. Single markers from Brian Lebler, David Wohlberg, Matt Rust and Tim Miller demonstrated the diversity of the offense the Wolverines directed at the Broncos in the series.
“I think that they were a big factor this weekend,” said Berenson of Palushaj and his linemates, Rust and Carl Hagelin. “They are a line that likes to be challenged. They like to go up against the other team’s top line. They shut down Western’s top line and then they outscored them. That is a tribute to them.”
Fittingly, Patrick Galivan, the CCHA’s overall regular scoring leader, scored the lone goal for Western Michigan.
“That’s a heckuva story,” proudly said Western Michigan coach Jim Culhane. “Galivan, as a recruited walk-on, winning the league scoring title. You think of the players (in the conference), we saw a number of them on the ice this weekend. That’s a heck of an accomplishment for our hockey program and for him.”
Similar to his performance in the Friday opener, Broncos’ goaltender Riley Gill was brilliant in a losing cause, holding his team in the game with several acrobatic stops.
“Gill has been spectacular,” said Culhane of his junior netminder, who faced over 100 Wolverines’ shots in the two weekend games. “Just an incredible performance; his play throughout the second half has been exceptional.”
In nearly a carbon copy of the previous night’s first period, Michigan jumped on top of the Broncos, 3-0, on two early goals in the first three minutes and added another with only three seconds remaining in the opening stanza.
The Wolverines not only dominated the scoresheet by three, but they also defended tenaciously, completely blanking Western Michigan from recording any shots on goal in the initial period, while they managed 21 of their own.
Aaron Palushaj and Brian Lebler bagged the early goals for the Wolverines and David Wohlberg added the last minute tally for the three-goal edge.
Only 1:56 into the contest, Palushaj flipped the puck to linemate Matt Rust in the corner to Gill’s left. Rust chased the puck down and flipped a waist-high pass back to Palushaj at Gill’s doorstep. Palushaj celebrated Saturday’s spring-like conditions in Ann Arbor with the baseball swing to knock the puck out of mid-air past Gill.
On a power play less than a minute later, Lebler increased the Michigan lead to two with his ninth goal of the season at 2:45.
In a demoralizing shot to Western Michigan’s comeback aspirations, Wohlberg jammed the puck by Gill from a scramble at 19:57 to make the Michigan lead 3-0.
Western Michigan did their best to keep up their part of following Friday’s game script by narrowing the Michigan lead to two late in the second period, but Michigan finally broke the pattern with a goal of their to skate off up by three goals, 4-1 at the end of two periods.
Broncos’ freshman defenseman Kevin Connauton carried the puck from his own blue line into the Michigan zone and found Galivan open in the high slot. Galivan took Connauton’s pass and beat Bryam Hogan at 13:56 to buoy Western Michigans comeback hopes.
Michigan struck in the second period’s final minute just as they had in the first period. A Palushaj pass to linemate Louie Caporusso deflected in off a Bronco defender’s skate to re-establish the Michigan three-goal edge at 19:35.
The Broncos continued to battle in the third period, but couldn’t dent the Michigan defense and goaltending. Rust and Tim Miller added third period goals to complete the scoring.
Culhane’s Broncos though, had the coach proudly noting the teams season’s accomplishments with pride and hope for the future.
“There are a lot of positives,” pointed out Culhane. “We have a young team. You look at the beginning of the season when the pre-season polls came out and they picked the Broncos dead last. We had great senior leadership, led by Chris Frank. Chris has matured so much as a hockey player and as a person. It just comes to mind how proud I am of him and that senior class. We just found a way to battle to become the number seven seed in the conference. We’ve got some good young players and I think we grew a lot. We learned a lot from this weekend, too.”